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Extending the Story: The New South

By: David Pitman, Northview High School Duluth, Georgia

 

After the Civil War, Southerners, confronted with the daunting task of rebuilding weakened and reduced political social and economic structures, set about debating and, in some ways, fighting anew over the shape and form of the "New South." Historian Andy Ambrose in his Atlanta, an Illustrated History discusses four ideologies shaping the emergence of new structures, collectively know as the "New South," which essentially would reconcile the economic, social, and political divisions which internally divided the South and continued to divide the nation between north and south; industrial and agricultural; and liberal and conservative. These ideologies espoused by those who supported the 'New South' called for reconciliation with the North and more diversified economy, both bold and new positions, coupled with limiting of African American rights, certainly a less bold idea. These ideas were well evidenced in the reconstruction history of the South, and particularly in Atlanta, which was positioned to become the capital of the South.

 

Possibly more than any other single person, Atlanta Constitution newspaper editor and co-owner Henry Grady is indelibly linked with the philosophies and suggested progress of the New South. He marketed the New South idea to northern and southern audiences attracting investors with eloquent descriptions of industrious southerners picking up the pieces and moving on after the war. Sprinkling his journalism with rhetoric and propaganda, Grady drove a very successful marketing effort to bring capital for industrial expansion to the South. The cotton textile industry was among the first industries to achieve regional and national success. Particularly, Atlanta's warehouses, cotton presses, seed mills, and oil mills all bourgeoned as southern cotton brokers bypassed the traditional seaports in favor of Atlanta's rail based transportation complex.

 

Economic opportunities in expanding southern urban areas brought scores of former farmers and laborers into cities such as Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Lexington Kentucky; and Raleigh, North Carolina looking for work in either the city's primary industry or the numerous support industries associated with the increase in population. Construction blossomed as this new economic activity created a need for business space, public works, and housing. Rail transportation facilitated the movement of goods throughout the southern region as well as into national markets. New South industries would flourish in the environment with start companies in all sectors gaining a footing on a national and international level.

 

Though many people experienced great wealth and opportunity throughout the New South period, this "progress" was limited primarily to the white majority. Political failings which led to Jim Crow laws blemished the "progress" of the New South Era, relegating most African Americans to a permanent underclass status. Desipte the failings of the New South to reconcile the deep divisions and inequities based on race which emerged from the Civil War, some entrepreneurial African Americans did enjoy economic success. Alonzo F. Herndon represents the best the New South had to offer its black citizens, but even his success, however, was limited to the few industries available to black citizens of the time. As a barber, he amassed a sizable fortune that he segued into other industries within the black community. Despite his fortune, Herndon's color prevented his entrance into Atlanta's City Hall, city parks, and "white only" areas of public venues. Blacks were limited to basic support industries throughout the South, and continued to be treated as second class citizens. What little agency they had was often contained within their particular community political structure and held little or no sway in state or local politics. As if codified segregation was not enough, the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a terrorist organization to emphasize the perceived superiority through violence and coercion.

 

The New South was a time of growth and contradiction. Southerners used their chance to "start over" to catch up with the industrial revolution and diversify its economy. To achieve this goal, it relied heavily on capital investment from Northern interests, but these interests, though concerned with reconciliation and equality between geographic groups, were able to turn a blind eye to the lack of reconciliation and equality between race groups. Despite the success at coming back from economic collapse, it would take another century to come to terms with the social collapse left from the Civil War.